Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Red Chapel: A Meeting Of The Absurd

by Taylor Conant

On something of a lark last night, I ended up seeing the comedy documentary, The Red Chapel, playing in town at the Dallas Film Festival. As a libertarian and detester of all things totalitarian, I find the idea of a country of over 20 million people that has remained almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world for nearly 60 years thanks to its dynastic socialist human-control experiment to be absolutely fascinating. And a movie like The Red Chapel, which offers me the opportunity to look inside it, seemed too good to pass up.

Truth be told, it was even better than I had hoped, thanks in part because Danish director Mads Brugger is a man of ruthless conviction concerning the unambiguous evil of the DPRK's current regime. Spoiler alert, I will be discussing a few elements of the plot because this movie is hard to get a feel for otherwise and the trailer at the film's website doesn't do it any justice.

This film is beautiful in so many ways but perhaps the most easily appreciated artistic element of the film is the fact that Kim Jong-Il, the NoKo dictator, besides being an outstanding golfer on par with the likes of Tiger Woods, is reportedly a humongous film buff as well. Kim Jong-Il has even reportedly written a book On the Art of the Cinema, which Brugger is found to be reading in his NoKo hotel room in the opening of the film, "for inspiration." To then use the "art of cinema" to attack this despot is a stroke of wit that is gratifying throughout the film.

Another easily appreciated element of the film is that the absurdity of the plot seems to directly mimic the absurdity of the reality of the regime and life in the DPRK. At its heart, The Red Chapel is something of a rolling spoof-- a Danish director (Mads Brugger) and his two Danish-(South) Korean comedian partners-in-crime arrive in NoKo to engage in a "cultural exchange" by putting on a comedy show that seems like something out of a horrible Monty Python-skit. Of course, the horribleness is the whole point. Brugger and company are really there to show how a dictatorship that takes itself too seriously to the point of absurdity reacts to something that is itself patently and obviously absurd to anyone living outside NoKo's bubble.

On the one hand, it seems a bit juvenile and crass, like a sketch from the Jackass-series or a scene from the film Borat where the producers are taking advantage of the courtesy, hospitality and good-naturedness of their victims. On the other hand, this is the last full-fledged communist dictatorship on the planet and at the end of the day, taking advantage of their hospitality is the least The Red Chapel crew could do to thank them all for the pure, deluded evil the regime represents. Still, as Brugger is quick to remind the audience throughout the film, it's never perfectly clear who is really playing whom. The DPRK lackeys are all experts in the art of propaganda and mind control and its hard to believe they'd ever invite any outsiders in, for any purpose, if they didn't think they could somehow spin it to their benefit. In this sense, it's entirely possible that after leaving the country, the regime used the wacky hijinks of the departed visitors to demonstrate how absolutely insane everyone else in the world is.

The Red Chapel gets you thinking about cause-and-effect in other ways. At the beginning of the film, it's easy to see all of the NoKo people, subjects, minders, apparatchiks and nomenklatura alike as victims of the tyrannical Kim regime. As Brugger notes in one disturbing scene in which a number of NoKo schoolchildren clap mindlessly and enthusiastically for the camera, everyone in NoKo is playing a role in Kim's fantasy and they act with conviction out of fear of reprisal.

But when one steps back from this scene, and many others like it, and reflects on the insights of French philosopher Etienne de la Boetie in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, one begins to wonder to what extent the NoKo populace has entrapped itself by lending these antics their consent. Surely, for treating the delusion of the NoKo "Worker's Paradise" as a serious reality, every individual bears some responsibility, from the military down and from the people-prisoners themselves on up?

Additionally, the film leaves you wondering about the culpability of the producer and his two comedian friends, Jacob and Simon, who not only had to go along with the farce to create their film, but actively encouraged it at times to provoke increasingly twisted reactions and to heighten the dramatic element of the treatment. As the director and producer, Brugger himself is necessarily a manipulative and controlling character personally and whether he intends to or not (my guess is he meant to), he depicts himself as somewhat conscienceless in his pursuit of doing what it takes to get the film made. Meanwhile, both Jacob, the spastic, and Simon suffer bouts of self-doubt and emotional hesitancy in between their displays of acerbic but thoughtful wit. Maybe a bit too predictably, it is the physically handicapped Jacob who proves to be the most emotionally sensitive of the bunch and he suffers a tearful breakdown partway through the film when he first faces his growing realization that they are actively participating in the evil and perhaps even callously using it to their artistic advantage.

At this point I've really only touched the surface of this wonderful film and all it has to offer. Were there no sound, no dialog and no voice-over from Brugger throughout the film it'd still be a fascinating piece just for the exotic contrast between the banal urbanity of the seemingly abandoned streets and buildings of Pyongyang (Brugger likens it to witnessing a city after the explosion of a neutron bomb, an apt description) and the charming, unspoiled beauty of the NoKo rivers and countryside. As Bruggers says, it is a land of hidden people and hidden places: behind those hills, death camps; behind that building's facade, possibly a small shop or other site of commerce; and behind the fake smiles or more commonly emotionless and expressionless faces of the average NoKo, a terrifying trauma and unabiding sadness at a mass of human potential utterly lost.

And that's to say nothing of the absolute hilariousness of this movie. It... is... FUNNY! Questions of mischievous manipulation aside, Brugger, Jacob and Simon are masters of injecting humor into the most unlikely places, through subtle and overt means alike.

In the end, there are two things that stand out most about the NoKo experience and both provide instructive lessons for American and Western audiences. The first lesson is that the number of "true believers" in a given tyrannical regime appears to be inversely proportional to the extent to which that regime is totalitarian. As much as the minders and the common NoKo citizenry depicted in the film seem to be moved by their Dear Leader, it seems rather obvious that they've all lived in close enough proximity to the lie to grasp it as such. Compare this to today's America, marching on the path to totalitarian absurdity itself, and you will find a lot more sincerity in the joyful tears of supporters of Bush or BHO... here, the totalitarianism is not yet a reality and therefore it still holds for the various sycophants some future promise not yet attained.

The second lesson is that dictatorships and socialism are completely and utterly childish. It doesn't take the viewer long to realize that the incredible, orchestrated displays of self-adulation of the Kim regime are constructed to satisfy an intensely immature mind, a mind that has not developed past the insecure vanities of childhood in the realms of emotion, psychology and intellect alike. It's not so much that socialist dictators are irrational so much as they seem to suffer from something best understood as a specific kind of sociopathic mental illness.

This is a powerful, complex film that will leave you thinking. It's best enjoyed with other people and followed up with an after-screening discussion at your favorite watering-hole. What's more, it's perhaps a perfect empirical antidote for any of your long-suffering friends afflicted with socialist sympathies.

Unfortunately, it's also in extremely limited release right now, so it may be hard to find. Hopefully, with more exposure, more highly deserved awards and more time it will reach a wider audience. Until then, keep your eyes peeled for it and take time to see it if you get the chance.

The Red Chape
l (Det Rode Kapel), 2009, 87m, directed by Mads Brugger, in English, Korean and Danish, w/ English subtitles.

Taylor Conant writes about economics, politics and liberty from Dallas, Texas. He believes the world would be a better place if more people minded their own business.

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